“Good morning Taxpayers!” announced Lasse Lund, looking at the Tea Partiers standing on the snow-covered steps of the Legislative Building. They were here at the Washington state capitol in Olympia on Saturday February 26, to protest against unions. Mixed among the professionally printed signs and the ubiquitous yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” and American flags, Tea Party supporters held handmade signs with slogans including “Repeal Collective Bargaining of Public Sector Unions,” “Stop Greedy Union Bosses!” “I support the American Family Tax Payer & Gov. Scott Walker,” “We Want a Right To Work State,” “Our Kids Can’t afford your pension,” “Obama, Where is Your Long Form Birth Certificate,” and “My 401K Says I Believe in America. Your Govt Pension Says You Believe in Welfare.”
The so-called “Taxpayers for Freedom” anti-union Tea Party rally was originally scheduled for the previous Wednesday, but bad weather pushed the event to Saturday, February 26, the same day as an already scheduled rally in Olympia to support of public employees in Wisconsin.
Sponsoring the anti-union rally were local Tea Party groups, as well the Washington state chapter of Americans for Prosperity and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF)–two statewide organizations with long histories supporting ultra-conservative policies and opposing trade union rights. Fewer than two hundred Tea Partiers attended.
To the consternation of Tea Party organizers, just as their rally was about to start, a large contingent of union supporters marched in to fill the steps of the Temple of Justice across the street. At the same moment that ranks of union supporters started swelled to more than two thousand, the Tea Party PA system was blaring the song “Know the Enemy” by Green Day, a very anti-Tea Party band, a bit of irony that probably escaped the Tea Partiers.
After a slight delay to talk with Capitol security and to try and figure out how to respond to the union demonstration, the aforementioned Lund, a former youth pastor who serves as Citizen Action Network Director for the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation, kicked off the Tea Party rally. “Let’s let our friends over there know who we are, and that we are the people!” Lund yelled, as if the union supporters across the street –who numbered more than ten times the Tea Partiers– weren’t “the people” in some way. Throughout this brief Tea Party rally, speakers repeatedly demonized public sector employees and their unions as parasites living off “their” tax dollars.
It is instructive to note how many ways the Tea Partiers could say the same thing, without ever a hint at understanding the hypocrisy of their claims.
When Seattle conservative talk radio host David Boze took the microphoone, he paused for cheers for Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker. Then Boze commented on the size of his Tea Party crowd, “I am impressed to see so many people come out. It’s not like you have a financial advantage– a direct financial advantage– to be here, as opposed to some people.” Several other speakers throughout the day made similar digs at the union supporters.
The facts are, however, that the majority of the speakers at this Tea Party rally do actually have a direct “financial advantage” for their anti-union activism; they get a paycheck for it. Seven of the ten speakers work for either Americans for Prosperity or the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the rally’s two biggest sponsors. Two others get paid by the state. And Boze himself makes his living talking anti-union politics on the radio. There were no “grassroots” Tea Party voices at the podium that day.
Boze told his crowd something the union supporters across the street already understood in a different way: the current fight to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees isn’t really about balancing budgets. According to Boze, “It’s more than about the current financial crisis, it’s about systemic conflict of interest that will plague this country and continue to leave us on unsustainable fiscal paths,” as if the public school teachers that teach their kids, the trash collectors that keep their neighborhoods clean, and the social security administrators to send out their checks have difference “interests” than the Tea Partiers.
Following Boze on-stage was his brother-in-law, Steve O’Ban, an anti-union attorney who ran unsuccessfully for a state representative seat in the 28thth legislative district in 2010. After bragging about his successes in attacking teachers unions in court, he declared, “Maybe there are two America’s after all.” Again, casting public sector employees as greedy parasites, O’Ban said, “One America has been hit with pay cuts and big reductions in benefits. The other goes on strike when asked to contribute just a little to their health insurance. One America watches its 401K’s evaporate, the other is asked to contribute just a little to their pensions. One America is out of work or fears it soon will be, while the other America enjoys near job security. One America barely has enough after paying taxes, the other lives off those taxes. There are two Americas. The public employee’s unions believe one exists to support the other.”
Going even further, O’Ban compared public employees to slave masters, “In virtually every state, taxpayers have been financially enslaved to pay guaranteed pensions, but the vast majority of Americans can now only dream of. The deficit spending to cover those pensions threatens our nation, but it also has forced us to finally confront the great cause of this huge financial crisis we’re in. The time to end the unholy alliance between public employee unions and the leaders they elect, it’s over. The foundation under the axis of greed is crumbling. It must not last. It cannot last. It will not last.”
Eric Lohnes, a policy analyst with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, followed. Lohnes had previously worked for the Building Industry Association of Washington, the notoriously anti-union group that has repeatedly threatened to file a so-called “right-to-work” initiative in the state. Lohnes too tried create an artificial distinction between state workers and taxpayers. He concluded by blaming unions for the budget problems in the state, “This is a problem. Our state is in financial straits, and yet labor unions and their allies in the legislature have continued to insist on raising your taxes to solve the problems that they’ve created. Enough will never be enough for them. It’s time to take our stand and declare justice for taxpayers.”
Michael Reitz, General Counsel of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, also attacked collective bargaining. He claimed, “There are really two types of problems with the collective bargaining process in government: there’s the process itself, and then there are the policies that keep unions afloat through coercion.” Reitz repeated several of the EFF anti-labor talking points, and ran through the EFF anti-labor agenda, which includes trying to de-fund unions.
One legislator turned out to speak at the Tea Party event, State Senator Michael Baumgartner (R-6th District, Spokane). He tried to rationalize the low turnout for his event, saying “I know there’s not as many of us out here today, because most of us have jobs – private sector jobs that pay for those folks,” meaning the trade unionists across the street. He encouraged the crowd to advocate for health savings accounts for state employees, moving the state from defined benefit pensions to defined contribution pensions, eliminating teacher tenure, and a constitutional amendment to limit state spending to population plus inflation growth.
Jennifer Burke began her speech by reciting her biography as a former teacher and a parent. She left out being hired by Americans for Prosperity – Washington State to do grassroots development, however. The only person of color to address the nearly all white crowd, Burke tried to dismiss charges of Tea Party racism, “For the last two years, I’ve been listening to people in the news media, people from the left, accuse rallies such as the one we’re holding, anytime the freedom foundation, Americans for Prosperity, or the Tea Party was involved in a rally, accused us of being racist, selfish, or being against the best interest of the country, simply because we think the government has too much spending and we want to keep more of our hard-earned money. And frankly I never understood what made that selfish.”
Burke never did address any of the substantive charges about racism in the ranks of the Tea Party movement. In two written pieces on the web, however, she has levied attacks on the NAACP, including regurgitating the Breitbart slanders against former Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod.
Burke also used the public employees as parasites trope, “I should not have to make any kind of hard choices at whether or not my son can go away to school instead of staying at home, because I have to worry about what kind of tax dollars I’m going to have to pay to pay for the pensions, the cushy pensions and health benefits deals that people like the unions get. The protestors that are protesting across the way now and those in Wisconsin, they’re not protesting against Scott Walker, they’re protesting against you and I, because fact of the matter is, we are their lifeblood to all those things that they claim that they want and they have the right to. I don’t believe that my husband and I should have to work and extra ten of fifteen years to save for our retirement so we can provide theirs free of charge.”
Scott St. Clair, yet another EFF staffer, followed Burke, giving a fiery sermon attacking unions: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Because we’re gonna burn! Because we have the fire of truth, and we have the fire of history going in our favor,” declared St. Clair. He also depicted unions as parasitic, “What Governor Walker is doing is necessary to prevent future budget confrontations and keep the state’s fiscal house in order, because when you try to get the weeds out of the garden by just topping them off, they grow back stronger and more prolific.”
Dr. Matt Manweller, a political science professor at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, took the staged and yelled, “I call them generational parasites, because they have such a massive sense of entitlement, that they think they’re entitled to the wealth and resources and opportunity of the generation that will come after them. Well guess what! The generation that will come after them, those are my kids. And so I don’t care if they show up with one or ten thousand, if they’re coming for my kids they’re coming through me first,” he shouted, before trying to compare himself to Braveheart.
Then Manweller chided the departing union supporters across the street, “Let me tell you something about the people who walked away. They are far more opinionated than they are educated. And their fiery passion is only matched by the immeasurable breadth of their ignorance. And we should take them seriously, folks, because passionately ignorant people is where bad public policy comes from.” Once again, the irony embedded in the Tea Partiers rhetoric seemed to escape them.
None of the pro-union supporters should miss the danger ahead. Washington State Americans for Prosperity director Nansen Malin, closed the Tea Party event by encouraging the Tea Partiers to get ready to elect a supportive Washington state governor in 2012.